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Understanding the Supreme Court Appeal Process

The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country and the only federal judiciary body mandated by the Constitution. As such, it typically hears cases from an appropriate Court of Appeals or the highest court in a particular state if a constitutional issue is involved.

This article takes a closer look at the following topics about the Supreme Court appeal process: 

  • The types of cases involved
  • The stages a case passes through
  • The proceedings at the Supreme Court. 

If you’re wondering how to appeal to the Supreme Court, one of the critical steps is writing a compelling brief. At Record Press, we can help you format and file a brief that meets the strict guidelines of the Supreme Court, increasing your chances of obtaining a hearing.

How does the Supreme Court handle appeals?

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When you want to appeal a court decision, it starts by submitting a petition for certiorari, which asks the Court to hear a specific case. However, its guidelines for accepting the request are comparatively strict. Out of over 7,000 requests each year, only 100-150 are granted.

What is a writ of certiorari?

When a party is dissatisfied with a lower court ruling, they can petition the Supreme Court by asking it to issue a writ of certiorari, which directs the original court to send up the case record for examination. A petition for certiorari follows a precise format; Record Press can save you time and increase your chances of acceptance by making sure it meets all required presentation standards before it’s filed.

What are the requirements for the Supreme Court to take an appeal?

The Supreme Court appeal process has specific criteria for accepting cases. The Court typically selects those that: 

  • Hold national importance
  • Could resolve conflicts among federal circuits
  • Have the potential to set key legal precedents

In rare instances, the Court must hear the case. This includes criminal appeals where the death penalty has been imposed. This selective approach ensures the Supreme Court can focus on issues with the broadest legal impact.

Recently heard cases include the following:

  • Fischer v. United States: This case involves a challenge to the use of a federal law against obstructing congressional inquiries, specifically in the context of the January 6th Capitol attack.
  • City of Grants Pass v. Johnson: This case addresses whether a city’s enforcement of bans on public camping violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment when homeless people do not have access to shelter.
  • Moyle v. United States and Idaho v. United States: These consolidated cases explore the conflict between a federal law that requires hospitals receiving Medicare funding to provide necessary emergency treatment to pregnant women and an Idaho state law that restricts abortion.
  • Thornell v. Jones: This case questions whether the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals misapplied Supreme Court precedent regarding the adequacy of legal representation in a death row inmate’s case.

Here are the steps of the Supreme Court appeal process

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The U.S. Supreme Court appeal process ensures each case is reviewed with the highest level of judicial scrutiny before a final decision is made. Below is an overview of the steps involved, beginning with a petition for certiorari.

Step 1: A petition for certiorari is sent

Parties seeking a review of a lower court decision submit a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, requesting it to take up their case.

Step 2: Each petition is reviewed by Justices

Each petition receives a thorough review. Most Justices participate in a “cert pool,” a system where law clerks from the participating Justices analyze the petitions, write brief memoranda, and recommend whether to grant or deny the certiorari. These recommendations are considered by the Justices during private conferences.

Supreme Court rules require that four of the nine Justices must vote to accept a case. In death penalty cases, at least five Justices must vote to grant a stay of execution. Under certain circumstances, one Justice may grant a stay pending case review by the entire Court. 

Step 3: If granted, appeal briefs are written

Once the Justices decide to hear a case, it is officially added to the docket. Here, the real work begins for the parties involved in the Supreme Court appeal process.

The petitioner must prepare a detailed legal brief within a set deadline. This brief, which cannot exceed 50 pages, outlines their arguments and the legal basis for their appeal. Once the petitioner’s brief is filed, the respondent—the opposing party—also has a fixed period to submit their brief and counter the petitioner’s arguments.

Following these initial submissions, the appellant may submit a shorter reply brief. These responses are designed to address specific points raised by the opposing party before oral arguments commence.

It is important to note that other interested parties can influence the proceedings. The U.S. Government may submit briefs in cases where it is not a direct party but has significant interest. Similarly, groups with a vested interest in the legal principles at play can file amicus briefs. These briefs provide additional perspectives and can help the Court understand the broader implications of a potential ruling.

At this stage, one of your biggest concerns will be the compliance of your brief. Record Press can help by preparing a detailed Table of Contents and Table of Authorities, designing the cover, and printing the sharpest quality pages and images. We can also bind your documents with scored hinge covers for a professional appearance.

Step 4: Oral arguments are heard

The Supreme Court’s term runs from the first Monday in October through the end of September the following year, with a recess from late June or early July until October. Oral arguments are usually scheduled from October to April.

During these months, arguments are structured into two-week sessions. Each case gets precisely one hour for argument, with lawyers from each side having half an hour to present their case and answer questions from the Court. This is their final chance to make a persuasive impression.

Step 5: The Justices conference with each other

After oral arguments are presented, the next step in the Supreme Court appeal process is the Justices’ Conference. This is where the Justices collectively decide on the outcome of the cases they’ve heard. The conferences are held twice a week—on Wednesday and Friday afternoons—when the Court is in session. Each Wednesday, they discuss the cases from Monday, and on Friday, they review the cases from Tuesday and Wednesday.

During these conferences, every Justice has the chance to express their views on the cases and pose any questions or concerns. This discussion follows a strict order: the Chief Justice speaks first, followed by the other Justices in descending order of seniority. The most junior Justice, who has the least tenure, speaks last. 

After everyone has spoken, voting takes place in the same order. After the votes are counted, the Chief Justice assigns someone from the majority to draft the Court’s official opinion. Conversely, the most senior Justice in the dissent determines who will write the dissenting opinion.

In cases where a Justice supports the decision but disagrees with the majority’s reasoning, they may choose to write a concurring opinion. Justices can also write dissenting opinions if they disagree with the majority. In the event of a tie, the decision from the lower court remains in effect.

Step 6: An opinion is made

For an opinion to become official, a majority of the Justices must support all its contents and “sign onto” it. No opinion is officially recognized until it is delivered in open Court or made available to the public. This ensures transparency in the decision-making process and maintains the integrity of the Court’s rulings. 

Those unhappy with the Court’s opinion may wonder, “Can you appeal a Supreme Court ruling?” The answer is no, as it is the final judicial arbiter on matters of federal law. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to build as strong a case as possible in a brief that’s as compliant as it is persuasive.

Sending an appeal to the Supreme Court? Record Press knows what you need

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The U.S. Supreme Court appeal process starts with a persuasive and well-formatted brief. If you’re preparing one, let Record Press help. With over 70 years of experience in appellate procedures at both state and federal levels, we can format your petitions for writ of certiorari as well as amicus curiae briefs and more. In fact, we’ve worked on countless Supreme Court appeal briefs.With skilled proofreaders and experienced appellate professionals on our team, Record Press ensures that your submissions meet the high standards of the Supreme Court. For more information or to schedule a consultation about our court services, please contact us today.